By the early 1990s, a group of downtown Naples businessmen had had it.
They'd been watching Fifth Avenue South deteriorate for years, taking their businesses with it, so they turned to urban planner Andrés Duany for help. A decade later, with Fifth Avenue South thriving, neighbors to the north in Fort Myers hired Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. to revitalize their downtown.
Duany (pronounced "dwahnee") and the company have carried the strategies of New Urbanism to countless communities, and have shaped plans for hundreds of development and redevelopment projects throughout the world.
"They all have different stories," Duany says from his Miami office.
The firm's plans address the gamut of issues that affect a community: regulatory, architectural, transportation, infrastructure, commercial and civic issues, among them.
"They do whatever needs to be done," Duany says. "A bunch of little things and big things and huge things and technical things and things that encourage and cajole and things that patch up mistakes and things that are visionary and things that are just arranging for the mattresses to be picked up for the dump."
He's fully aware that his ideas sometimes create a whirl of opposition and controversy. His plans left Naples in a debate over additional parking garages, for example, and Fort Myers in turmoil over building heights. But he doesn't let that interfere with his vision.
"These things are terribly political," he says. "If 16 neighbors within a thousand feet are against it, but there are another 72,000 people who have not weighed in," he maintains, the opposition is "statistically insignificant."
Duany says that Naples has progressed rapidly on its original plan, and that Fort Myers is following suit. Since Naples adopted its first plan in 1994, "They have moved just extraordinarily and very quickly, about as fast as any town we've ever worked with, short of Stuart," he says. "It's also remarkable how Fort Myers is moving very quickly, too."
When Duany arrived in Naples in 1993, "They were essentially a one-story city, a one-story main street, and they had empty storefronts and totally out-of-date food," he says. "Naples had fallen asleep standing up. They had no espresso in the whole city; assimilate that thought! We had to bring our own espresso machine to survive."
Tamela Wiseman, now vice mayor of Naples, had an office on Fifth Avenue at the time. "I, like many other business people, fled the street because it was dying, like so many downtown traditional shopping areas have died."
Duany met with the community, took stock of the situation and presented a plan to create an environment to make people park their cars, walk and interact. Fifth Avenue South would become a place not just to work, but to live and play. Among the suggestions:
n Make buildings three stories, with interesting shops and restaurants on the ground floor, offices on the second floor and residences on the third floor.
n Ground floors should be against the sidewalk, not separated by parking areas or landscaping, and upper floors should be set back to create an inviting atmosphere for pedestrians.
n Move parking behind buildings, build three parking garages, and simplify parking requirements to allow more variety among businesses.
n Update landscaping and architecture and adopt a color scheme.
n Incorporate cultural and arts attractions.
n Create a roundabout with a fountain where Fifth Avenue South meets U.S. 41.
n Develop Cambier Park in a coherent design, incorporating public structures and such features as a green with shade trees in front of the band shell.
Once the plan was adopted in 1994, changes snowballed. Developer Jack Antaramian redesigned a project under construction on the street to fit Duany's suggestions, providing a model for others, says city planning manager Ann Walker. The city developed a code spec-ific to the district and its needs. It also created a plaza there, donating part of the property to the Naples Players for Sugden Community Theatre, and it provided space in Cambier Park for the Naples Art Association.
Between 1991 and 2001, according to the city's planning department, about $64 million in permits were issued for improvements to Fifth Avenue South, and appraised property values rose from around $25 million to more than $100 million.
When Duany returned after a decade, in February, "basically to tie up our plan and correct deficiencies," he says that among other things, "we had to rebalance the parking and incentivize the eastern end, which was less developed."
"We've had 21 either new buildings or major modifications," says Walker. "So at least half of the properties have had either a complete rebuild or major remodel additions."
But a visitor can easily pick out those that have not redeveloped. That many of them are on the east end of the street is in "no small part to the credit of the parking facility," says Wiseman, who serves with Walker on the Staff Action Committee to oversee exterior changes in the district. The city is wrangling over the remaining two proposed garages.
"The political question becomes, 'Do we need to complete the plan and allow the properties that have not redeveloped an opportunity to do that?' And that's going to take more parking," says Walker.
In addition, city leaders discarded the roundabout concept and disregarded the Cambier Park plan.
"We had designed a specific kind of park and they did another design," says Duany. "The park is, in my opinion, dreadful. It's a hodgepodge. The other thing they didn't do was the roundabout," which is probably no longer possible because of new buildings.
On his return, Duany also took note of the businesses in the district, not just in appearance and placement, but in merchandise and advertising, says Wiseman. He found too many offices in ground-floor spaces that should be filled with shops, and he advised business owners on everything from poor window displays at real estate agencies to types of merchandise Wynn's Market should carry. He also encouraged more businesses on Fifth Avenue South that would serve its residents, and proposed a public/private partnership to reestablish a grocery on the street.
"I don't think that's going to happen," says Wiseman of the partnership. But she's enthusiastic about Duany's idea to create a public plaza adjacent to the von Liebig Art Center, similar to that by Sugden Community Theatre. "That's such a dynamic concept. I'd like to see that work," she says.
Duany's plans come with growing pains. Regulations often have to be reworked to accommodate them, and they can spark conflicts between what has been and what is planned. Longtime residents in single-family neighborhoods near Fifth Avenue South, for example, don't all welcome the idea of outdoor dining and live entertainment.
Some ideas fell flat with the community, such as updating the color scheme from yellows and corals to white.
"They decide," says Duany. "I was informing them that pastel colors are out of style, and if they were following the development of fashion and art and the avant-garde, everything's in white and gray. If they look, for example, at the latest and coolest of buildings in Miami Beach, they are no longer in pastel, they're white and gray. We're sick of color. We've done pastels. Besides, white is a very ecological color in Florida, because the heat load is much less, and that's driving a lot of what we do."
The Man with the Plan
Although Duany's two visits to Naples produced both popular and unpopular suggestions, says Walker, "The biggest surprise was Mr. Duany himself. He can say quite awful things about your community, and everybody claps."
Fort Myers councilwoman Tammy Hall describes Duany as charismatic, confident-maybe a bit arrogant-but she knew he would do what he thought was right for the community. He was also infuriating, making decisive statements one day, then contradicting them the next, she says, but it was his method. "His goal is to make you mad enough to stand up and have an opinion," she says.
"I do make decisive statements. No question about that," says Duany. "What I do is a sequence of strong positions; that's how I get people to respond." However, he adds, "I do reserve the right to have no opinion, and it really upsets people when I say, 'This doesn't matter one way or the other.'"
Building heights, for example. "Once you're over four stories, it doesn't matter if it's seven or eleven. You can't even tell; you have to sort of count them with your fingers." It matters more when it's 11 or 33 stories, but mostly because it strains parking. "The difference is in degrees," he adds. "Once you decide to do something, the degree is less important than having decided. It's just the way in urbanism; it's not a very precise science."
He's surprised that building heights have sparked controversy in Fort Myers. "You know, I thought Fort Myers was actually much less contentious about building heights than any other place I've ever worked. I think they're very liberal about things," he says.
Fort Myers Rising
When Duany arrived in Fort Myers in 2001, "Fort Myers was already happening. With the European influence, with renovations of buildings, it was already happening," says Duany.
A downtown plan from the mid-1980s, which produced such developments as Harborside Event Center and Centennial Park, included outdated features such as a pedestrian mall and aquarium.
For years, efforts to revitalize downtown had failed to catch fire, says Hall. The first step toward real change was when entrepreneur Dominik Goertz arrived in town and started buying and redeveloping downtown buildings, she says. Within a few years, Homes for America Holdings arrived on the scene with plans for a new residential high-rise. But the downtown plan still needed updating, so Duany's firm was hired.
"When we were first retained, Fort Myers wanted to be like Naples, and I think we convinced them not to. Naples is Naples and Fort Myers had its own personality. There's definitely a difference; it's a much edgier place," says Duany. The Naples focus is arts and culture, but Fort Myers had its own hook: "Bikers," he says. "There was a biker theme-perfectly harmless old bikers; you know how they are now. I thought it was very cool; it should be preserved."
As with Naples, the plan for Fort Myers encouraged pedestrian interaction with buildings through retail and restaurants on the ground floor, offices and homes upstairs.
Unlike Naples, where the project was one street of six blocks, the Fort Myers plan encompassed the entire downtown area.
"We were able to get a consensus that people wanted the waterfront to be more active, and businesses where people can come and sit and enjoy. People realized the only way to get that would be to get retail" in the central area, says Hall.
Duany proposed more intense residential development, high-rises, to the east and west of the heart of downtown, roughly the area between the Edison and Caloosahatchee bridges abutting the river. Along the sidewalks by the high-rises would be liner buildings housing pedestrian-friendly views-townhouses, shops or other features to hide parking garages under the structures.
Pedestrian pods would develop in several areas. Duany discussed building a new parking garage closer to walking areas, moving businesses such as muffler shops to streets adjacent to the pedestrian areas, encouraging a trolley or other transit system, and developing a cultural campus. A simplified street-scape plan also emerged, designed to focus attention on storefronts and buildings.
In addition, Duany advised the city to capitalize on its own waterfront properties, where opportunities for public/private partnerships existed. One of those properties is the site now of a proposed residential high-rise, the Vué. Its plan incorporates commercial space and extensive public uses, including a riverwalk, plazas and a home for a longstanding sailing center. The city is also looking at proposals by developers for a second riverfront site, which includes the City Pier and Exhibition Hall.
"Downtown needed major infrastructure improvements," Hall adds, "so the city committed to placing water and sewer lines," which is in process along with necessary zoning changes. Plans for another phase, around the public library and Southwest Florida Historical Museum, south of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, also are taking shape, says Elly Soto McKuen, a principal planner for the city.
Furthermore, about a dozen waterfront high-rise projects are in the construction or planning phase.
"We adopted the plan a year and a half ago," says Hall. "To date, we have almost half a billion dollars of private investment. I think we've done great."
While high-rise units are selling at a jaw-dropping clip, commercial progress is still slow.
"In order to attract business, we need residential rooftops, and we haven't had that," says McKuen.
But it's starting to happen, says Bob Pekol, a realtor with Grubb & Ellis|VIP who specializes in commercial properties downtown. "The few remaining buildings that haven't been renovated are pretty much all under renovation now. I've seen a lot more interest in retail from bigger, national-type retailers," he says. "They're basically positioning themselves for the future. Because there's only so [many] retail storefronts down there, I think they do it in the expectations of having it slow the first couple years and they'll be in a good position later when it all fills in."
Eye on the Future
Ultimately, Duany says, the key is making sure that the present doesn't obstruct future success.
"When you need a planner is in order to achieve a future vision, so when somebody says, 'That fellow there will never sell,' I'll say, 'How old is that fellow?' They say 56. I say, 'That's fine. This is a 20-year plan. He won't be here; he'll be retired somewhere else," Duany says. "Planning is about the future; therefore, it's important that plans have a 20-year vision, although they may be executed in five."
But trying to plan beyond 20 years is not realistic. "Twenty years is a generation," a span from birth to voting age, Duany points out. "But you really do need to take things out of the hands of the present. Present is usually averse to any kind of change. So you say this is not for you, this is for your children."